Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
As a society we face two major challenges and they are inextricably linked. We must deal with an unemployment crisis — as of today we have an additional 5,000 people unemployed — and also restore our economic fortunes. Central to both exercises is the upskilling of the unemployed. Increasing the skills base, innovative capacity and creativity of the entire population is necessary. Recovery in the economy depends on reaching our full potential. In this regard, we must target those at the lower end of the skills base. The largest rate of decline in employment is in the construction sector, with males under the age of 25 years being the worst hit, predominantly in the Border, midlands and west, BMW, area, particularly in my own county of Cavan where 7,500 are currently unemployed, a large cohort of whom are under 25.
It is interesting that 37% of adults in Ireland have not completed second level schooling in full. A total of 18% of Irish pupils do not survive in the system long enough to complete the leaving certificate. Those with poor skills have difficulty in gaining employment. They also face other difficulties in terms of being vulnerable to substance abuse and such difficulties become generational. Predominant among this group are young men and migrants. It is a myth that all migrants are returning to their own countries. There are a large number who have migrated here. An important challenge is presented by upskilling those at levels 1 to 3 — second and third year at second level — to levels 4 to 5 — leaving certificate level. That is the biggest challenge we face in the system.
The percentage of the labour force with higher education qualifications, that is, levels 6 to 10, increased from 33% in 2005 to 39% in 2009 and the target is to reach the figure of 48% by 2020. That is a good news story, which I welcome. The figure at levels 4 and 5 — upper secondary and leaving certificate — has remained at 40% and the target is to reach the figure of 45% by 2020. There is, therefore, much to be done in that regard.
There is a need to combat early school leaving and increase literacy and numeracy skills. There is a need also for integration of literacy and numeracy skills with all publicly funded education and training programmes. All education courses, including apprenticeships and other State funded courses, should have a literacy and numeracy content, the need for which should be established by screening. In May less than half of the 33 VEC adult literacy services had validated programmes leading to certification at level 2. That is not a good news story. This problem must be sorted out. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State’s response.
Public funding support for workplace training and education programmes should be attached to the literacy and numeracy content. In the last budget the third level maintenance grant was removed if a person was in receipt of the back to education allowance. While on the face of it that might seem equitable, in practice it is a huge disincentive in returning to school. We have a great deal of experience in that regard. The Leas-Chathaoirleach and I know of many people, through the VTOS and the VEC in County Cavan, who have availed of the back to education allowance and benefited hugely from it. I could chronicle many stories in that regard. Adult education officers are not being replaced because of the moratorium on recruitment. That is not acceptable because of the critical nature of that position. There is a need for additional VTOS and back to education initiative places.
I welcome the provision of the labour activation fund, but it was rushed over Easter. As a result, the design of courses may be rushed. I ask the Minister of State to examine the matter and whether the tendering was rushed also. He should examine the content of courses and ensure there is good validation and good quality courses available. The VECs and PLCs should have primacy in this regard. There is nothing that FÁS has done in contemporary times that should give it primacy over the VECs and PLCs.
We need innovation, problem solving, design and language skills. There are two ends to that market. Many who were carried away by the Celtic tiger and left school prematurely or because of generational or societal difficulties need upskilling in numeracy and literacy, but at the upper end of the market we must upskill people in problem solving, design, computer skills, continental languages and so on — I refer to graduates in many instances — to make them employable.
There are 250,000 people employed in the wholesale and retail business. A total of 50,000 are directly employed in the food and drink sector; some 60,000 are indirectly involved, with 120,000 farmers. There was a proposal to establish an industry forum to deal with upskilling, training and retraining. Will the Minister of State if any progress has been made in that regard. What is the current position, as I am not aware of any progress having been made. There was also a suggestion that we should have a dedicated college. I put a similar question to the Minister in that regard.
My party has a proposal which seems to be eminently sensible or, to use the awful cliché, a no brainer. We should have internships. There should also be part-time placements for graduates. We propose there should be 10,000 such places made available throughout the country. We have a similar proposal in respect of apprenticeships and are also proposing a job sharing initiative. These initiatives should be examined as a way of absorbing graduates into the system and giving them work experience aimed at lifelong learning. Our great inheritance from previous generations was their identification of the importance of education and lifelong education. Education is the key to solving all of our difficulties and in presenting opportunities. I would like to hear the Minister of State’s response on these issues. The amendment to the motion states not enough is being done. Nobody could contend otherwise. I am sure Senator Ó Murchú will accept the amendment, without the need for a division.
Senator John Paul Phelan: I do not get too hot and bothered about the rules of the House, but if business is ordered to commence at 5 p.m., it should commence at that time. I am not giving out about Senator Ó Murchú who was hauled in to propose the motion, but surely the Government could have had Members here to speak at least within five minutes so as not to leave other Members waiting. I understand Members have to attend other meetings, but those of us who came to the Chamber at 5 p.m. also have meetings we would like to attend. It is a ham-fisted way for the House to operate.
I am not particularly pleased with the motion the Government has put before the House. It is common for it, when availing of Private Members’ time, to put these particularly ridiculous motions before the House in which it praises its own efforts in particular sectors. However, nothing could be further from the truth in the matter of lifelong learning. There is a danger that every Government will believe its own propaganda and mistake statements for actions and press releases for the reality. The Government has succumbed to that danger and this motion is confirmation, if it is needed, that the Government is seriously out of touch with reality. Only the truly delusional could congratulate this Government for its commitment to lifelong learning at a time when one fifth of the labour force has only a junior certificate qualification. Before I go any further, I should state that I do not doubt the commitment of Senator Ó Murchú or the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey to lifelong education, but it is unfortunate this commitment is not shared by the Government, which has failed to properly fund the service or to understand the strategic importance of lifelong learning in the national economy or to the lives and career development of people who are living and working in a knowledge economy.
Ireland is currently gripped by the worst recession in living memory and there is no business, household or individual which has not been impacted. The global credit crunch, the domestic banking crisis and, in particular, the implosion of the construction sector have hit the Irish economy hard.
The term “the smart economy” is another that is often used but little understood by Ministers. The smart economy is shorthand for describing an economy which makes full use of information technology and communications to drive innovation, research and development in a world where economic growth must be environmentally sustainable. In essence, the smart economy is all about driving productivity and increasing the value of our assets. The biggest asset we have in Ireland right now is our people and the best way to drive productivity is through increasing educational attainment.
It is estimated today that every year the average level of education of the adult population is raised there is a corresponding increase of 3.7% in long-term economic growth, which is a very significant figure. However, education is not only about economics or growth; it is really about people. Behind all the statistics are real people — thirty-somethings with young families faced with losing their homes, parents anxiously worried about the future of their teenage children and construction workers, in particular, wondering whether to take the boat or to stay in Ireland.
There are now in excess of 440,000 people claiming unemployment assistance, up more than 50,000 from this time last year. These people need more than monetary assistance; they need hope and the means to build a new future in a reborn economy. They also need a system of lifelong learning that works and that delivers real and meaningful education and training when and where they need it. They need a system that facilitates the learner and does not put obstacles in the way, but this is not what they are getting right now. How can the Government, with a straight face, ask this House to commend it for its commitment to lifelong learning when in 2009 it accounted for a mere 4% of the overall education budget or 0.22% of GDP?
In the last budget at a time of spiralling unemployment, the Government took a number of measures to discourage people from going back into education. From September 2010, if one qualifies for the back to education allowance or VTOS allowance for a PLC course, one will no longer be eligible for the student maintenance grant which could support one’s participation by an additional €6,500 per year. Budget 2010 disbanded the Millennium Partnership Fund which provided some financial support for adult learners, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. In addition, if one is eligible for a student grant, then one can expect to receive a reduction of 5% in accordance with changes announced in the last budget.
There is now a significant demand for adult education. People want to learn. They want to build their skills and they want to get back into the workforce. Last year Aontas, the adult education service, received just over 6,000 queries — the number has doubled since 2007. In 2009, there were 37,000 applicants for 13,000 places on PLC courses. The VTOS recorded a 50% increase in applications over the previous year. The number of applications for the back-to-education allowance approved in October 2009 was almost 19,000, up from a total figure for the previous year of 11,500 applications.
The people are willing to work to get themselves a second chance at education but the system is failing them. Due to the public service embargo, adult education officers are leaving the system and are not being replaced. I am aware of the position in County Mayo, for example, where both adult education officers retired in 2009 with the result that there is now no-one holding that position in the entire county.
I have dealt with several queries, as, I am sure, have other Senators, from unemployed persons who are trying to find out to what they are entitled when they seek to go back to education and what courses are available, and to be honest, the system just does not work. Why can we not put in place a single website where a person can answer a questionnaire which tells him or her, at least roughly speaking, to what he or she is entitled and allows him or her to search and apply for suitable courses? Why, in this day and age, are we still putting people through hoops to find basic information?
If one is born in certain parts of this city, or maybe certain parts of the country, one is more likely to end up in Mountjoy than in Trinity, and the State would gladly pay more to keep you there for a year than it ever spent on your education. There is no more shameful waste than the waste of human talent. As a nation, we can no longer afford a system that does not enable lifelong learning. The system should not only enable, but encourage and foster lifelong learning so that we can develop all of our people’s potential.
Lifelong learning can mean starting at the beginning, picking up from early school leaving on which Senator Healy-Eames has recently done a report or retraining after unemployment. We should not forget that for many lifelong learning means starting, not restarting, their education. We really need to look at proper funding for the community educational sector.
This House cannot commend the Government for its commitment to lifelong learning, rather we should condemn it for the poverty of its ambition and the ham-fisted ad hoc way it has approached one of the central social and economic challenges of our times, namely giving our unemployed citizens new skills and renewed hope.
I am pleased that this debate is taking place this evening. I will not go into the nitty-gritty of whether the motion or the amendment is necessarily the main flag-bearer of the debate. What we should look at, first, is the history of education here.
Most people would accept that it was precisely because of the high standard of education that we made such progress during the good years in Ireland. In many ways, it was education that led the Celtic tiger throughout those years as well. We have been credited, not only within the country but internationally, with being well ahead in the context of IT. It was because young people took so well to that revolution at that time and it prepared them, not only for the developments that were to take place in Ireland but, for those who decided of their own volition to leave Ireland and went to a country of their adoption, to be confident as compared to those who emigrated from Ireland in previous decades. We need only look at the success that many of those people attained when they went abroad. Some of them went into senior management positions. From time to time I have looked at the top 100 as presented by Irish America magazine and there one will find that many of these young people, as they moved on in life, are now listed among the top 100 because of their achievements and their success. That would not have happened only for their solid foundation.
In a practical sense, at home as well, there was a time when third level education was open only to the very wealthy and there was a particular class distinction about that. We all could identify the potential of those we knew for further education but, because the doors were not open to them for economic reasons, often they had to forego that potential and forego their ambitions as well.
Now we see an entirely new situation. As a result of the business structures in this country and the entrepreneurship which has come to the fore, young people are coming forward who are not from very wealthy backgrounds but who are successful because of their own ability. The opportunities provided to them have enabled them, over a number of decades, not only to open the door but to enter fully into the opportunities which presented themselves. These young people in turn have become role models for their own peer group and for other young people. This goes back to the education system which prepared them for whatever opportunities came their way.
This debate is considering the new challenges facing us as a result of the economic recession. Considerable numbers of people are no longer employed. Many of these people were quite skilled in particular areas when opportunities existed for those skills. We have always been good at responding to current needs. I look back at the success of the vocational education committees which provided pragmatic and practical training to suit the particular era. For those who had grown out of the education system at a particular age, night courses were available. I look back and see how many people came to the fore, learned new crafts in those vocational courses and were able to go out and create jobs for themselves. These jobs did not create significant statistics to put up on the noticeboard but they were self-sustaining crafts within the local community. Even when economic challenges came their way, those types of cottage industries were not affected, generally speaking, because they did not have the same overheads or international competition to contend with. This should be one of the guiding thoughts when talking about upskilling. We should not just think of upskilling in the pure academic sense but rather about upskilling to avail of new opportunities which may come our way.
Tourism is one area. It was one of the big revenue earners for this country although we have greater challenges now. I still think that in this year and future years, while there will be a percentage drop, tourism is still very important. The training in that case should be to dissect the tourism industry. It is one of the industries which spreads throughout the whole country. It is not centralised in areas of large population. Many of our main attractions are away from areas of large population and, therefore, the opportunities are being dispersed. It will not be sufficient to take for granted that people will automatically come like they did in the past because we had that generational connection, especially with America. This is changing and we have to be keen on becoming more professional and, in the best sense, exploit our strengths. We cannot just go with the tide. Our education must include not just university education but also practical education in other third level institutions. The vocational model can play a particular role.
The House discussed FÁS over the years and there have been a number of distractions from the great successes of FÁS and the potential that concept presented for the future. We often focused on a very small element of FÁS management but we did not look down into all the schemes operating within communities, each with its own evolution and organic development. I appeal to the Minister of State to keep in mind the potential of this type of training. I know of a number of schemes where FÁS training resulted in 98% job placement. This is a significant figure which was replicated in many other areas. The normal structured sense of education will not be able to offer urgent help to the 400,000 waiting to be serviced. I do not see any reason the FÁS model and the networks which exist locally and which are well managed and successful cannot be used urgently for providing training for at least 100,000 people from the live register. I hope, therefore, we do not just think long-term but also think short-term. I have done considerable research on this topic to see how we might avail of it.
With regard to the current structured education, everyone seems to be thinking about university, which is good in itself and is a sign of the times. Having obtained a primary degree, students then think about a masters degree and a doctorate, all of which are vital and correct because education is more than just a job and economics. If we are talking about providing more jobs, however, it is important to consider what young people are being prepared for in university or in any of the other colleges. I know of many areas where people are doing their four years’ study and an extra one year but I am not clear if the opportunities for jobs will be there for them when they leave that educational structure. This comes back to career guidance in the schools. In the present recessionary times if we are thinking of education as a stepping stone to a job, our guidance counsellors should be trained to adapt to new situations. They should be preparing the people who come to their counselling sessions in the context of what jobs will be available for them and help them select the suitable courses. In addition to selecting the courses, we should consider whether existing courses will prepare them for the existing economic climate.
We should take hope that there has been very little slippage in our level of exports. We should consider industrial production, crafts and the products which can be sold abroad. We should also focus on the basis for that export business. If, for instance, it is one of our strengths, like tourism, then this is an area of focus. We should also look at the agriculture area. I was delighted years ago when I saw the development of agricultural colleges which produced young people well-trained in all aspects of the agricultural industry. I suggest we need to look at the area of organic farming and organic horticulture precisely because we have a good name and a clean environment and this is one of our strengths. I hope that in future, education will take that into the proper context. I am not getting into the nitty-gritty of the motion or the amendment, per se, because that will be well attended to by others. I am looking at the essentials of what education is for. It is about delivering a rounded character, but at the same time it is about preparing people for jobs that will become available.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, and am pleased that he is taking this debate. He has taken this subject into his own ambit and has become very knowledgeable in the area. I appreciate that he is in the Chamber to hear what we have to say.
Lifelong learning begins in pre-school and continues to the post-retirement stage. It is a continuous process. Education is a fundamental factor in improving our knowledge, skills and competence. The country currently faces major economic and social challenges, and education is of fundamental importance.
I welcome the Government’s decision to adopt a national skills strategy to examine the skills profile to 2020. It clearly shows that if Ireland is to make progress vis-à-vis our competitors, we must focus on skills development at various levels. We must examine where jobs are likely to be in future, but how can we go about doing that? We are now in a major recession and therefore we must assess what kind of courses are most suitable. We must also decide how to reach out to the unemployed to take on the challenges of the future.
I have undertaken some research to determine how to protect existing jobs and create new ones. We must examine the various courses that are available. I welcome the adult education budget increases which have gone from €256 million in 2006 to €420 million this year. Let there be no doubt that it is a major commitment, which stands alone. It means that 23,000 adult education and training places have been created since then, which is a big step forward. How can we design education courses that will afford access and transfer opportunities for low-skilled, disadvantaged and unemployed people, as well as undergraduates and graduates? Such courses must be open to all. The main purpose is to provide a range of supports to those who have left school early, are unemployed and require further vocational education and training to enhance their employment prospects. Upskilling can enable them to take part in what is a very competitive environment. They should be facilitated to re-enter the jobs market, which is the core objective. We must get the requisite courses in line with the vision of the national skills strategy to place square pegs into square holes.
The Youthreach project, which is aimed at school drop-outs, is an excellent one targeting young people from 15 to 20 years of age. They may not like the school environment, but they can work in a community environment instead. That system is working, but we must ensure that the right type of teachers are engaged who understand the young people involved. The latter cohort do not want to be involved in a structured school situation, so an alternative programme is required for them. There are horses for courses, so some teachers may be better suited to the community style environment than to the school-room. Sometimes, academic teachers do not fit well into Youthreach courses. We should be watchful to ensure that such courses will work for young people who cannot adapt to normal school structures.
The vocational training opportunities scheme, or VTOS, provides superb programmes for people seeking to re-enter the education system. The vocational skills courses provided by VTOS are excellent. Post-leaving certificate courses facilitate entry at all levels, including to third-level institutes of technology. PLC courses cover vocational skills, work experience, vocational studies and general studies. They are suitable for those who do not like a formal structure, in addition to leaving certificate applied students, or those who have left the system and now wish to return to it. PLC courses provide such people with an entrée to the education sector, thus giving them a chance to move on to institutes of technology.
Part-time community programmes provide courses in literacy and numeracy. Many people may have had great jobs in the construction industry, but could not read or write. They are now coming to terms with themselves and, with time on their hands, they can opt to pursue adult literacy courses. They are doing very well in the areas with which I am familiar.
The back to education initiative provides access to part-time education. In that way, students can work with a chosen industrial sector while pursuing flexible courses. That system also applies to higher education courses. In future, we will have to change course content to absorb the partnership arrangement whereby those in full-time employment can get time off to attend such courses. Alternatively, part-time workers could access courses two days a week, for example. We need to work closely in a partnership arrangement with the business community and in conjunction with local schools.
In the past, the Dublin industrial estates worked well with schools, involving various work experience programmes. Industry representatives gave lectures in schools, particularly for leaving certificate applied and post-leaving certificate students. We now need more of that type of co-operation and co-ordination.
The strategic innovation fund covers flexible learning projects which are becoming more prevalent in the institutes of technology. Flexible courses can encompass a vision of the future, including how to upskill people for jobs and change society’s focus towards the kind of jobs that will arise. All our higher education institutes must change their course content to suit future needs. Many degree courses have not evolved over the past ten years, so they should become more flexible and outwardly focused. Academics need to be more open-minded in accepting new suggestions, rather than going by the book and ignoring a vision for the future. I hope the situation will change. FÁS has done a good job, but I am still a bit worried about duplication. If we are to encourage upskilling, we must consider all the stakeholders. I refer to officials in the Departments of Education and Skills, Social Protection and Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and to other stakeholders such as teachers and higher education academics. More co-ordination is necessary if we are to fill the new jobs and courses of the future. We need a vision if we are to move from where we are. The strategy is a good move. I hope we can use it as a guideline. If more stakeholders are involved, perhaps it will be broadened further.
Senator David Norris: I would like to start on a positive note. I went to Clonakilty, County Cork, a few days ago after the business of the Seanad had concluded. I was driven to meet some transition year students who had completed a couple of remarkable projects. One beautiful girl had assessed the gender-based differences in taste regarding perfume and scent, etc. She tested them very scientifically in a blind test and came up with what turned out to be the formula for Chanel No. 5. This interesting and fun project might also have some degree of commercial application. Much better than that was the project undertaken by a group of young women of approximately 15 years of age who had spotted a local difficulty, the efflorescence of sea lettuce, which is a form of seaweed that had accumulated in the local bay. When it made its way onto the shore, it dried out and stank. They isolated this problem and examined it. When they collected the material in question, they discovered they could treat it and compress it to create briquettes. It burned for twice as long as peat and gave the same heat value.
Senator David Norris: Young people with such initiative give hope to our country by being able to turn a problem into an advantage. I spoke last night at a dinner in Trinity College for the disability programme that provides access to the college. The students who attended the dinner were really inspiring. One of them, Rosaleen McDonagh, has been a candidate in my constituency on several occasions. She refused to allow her disadvantages as a Traveller woman in a wheelchair to disbar her from education. I wanted to start with the positives. I praise Donogh O’Malley and all the rest who freed up access. By 2020, if things go right, approximately 70% of leaving certificate students will go on to third level education. That is extraordinary and marvellous.
We cannot rely on clichés. It is not sufficient to talk about people who are wonderfully educated. It is blather. Dr. Craig Barrett punctured that little bubble for us. We are not as great as we think we are. We need to face the problem realistically. If we address it, we will be in a position to capitalise on the talent in this country. We need to look at what happened when access to education was freed up in Northern Ireland, for example. I read the other day about the extraordinary roll call of former pupils of St. Columb’s College in Derry, including John Hume, the musician, Phil Coulter, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane. It is possible that none of them would have completed their careers as successfully as they did without the improvements in educational access.
I would like to mention some indicators. Earlier this year, Catherine Dooley and Paul Downes of St. Patrick’s College published a useful and easily accessible document, Lifelong learning opportunities in the workplace for traditionally disadvantaged groups in Ireland. They pointed out that the National Economic and Social Council estimates that 60% of those who will be in the labour force in 2020 are already in employment. In other words, the same people will continue to comprise the majority of the workforce in ten years’ time. They also argued that skills levels need immediate attention. Under the international standard classification of education, 30% of the workforce has level 2 qualifications or less, with 10% of the workforce having level 1 qualifications or no qualifications at all. That is the situation we are at. There is a serious need for the upskilling of low-skilled workers. The document also reported that more than 100,000 people under the age of 30 in the Irish workforce left the education system without the leaving certificate. It found that 18% of young people in the Irish education system leave second level before reaching the leaving certificate. Many of those who leave school early move into low-skilled jobs with very little opportunity for upskilling. If the economic downturn persists, these people will be more exposed because they entered the job market at a low skill level.
We must acknowledge that there is a serious funding problem in the current difficult economic situation. According to an impartial view — I am not quoting partisan groups like Fine Gael, the Labour Party or Fianna Fáil —€4 billion is required to upgrade building space and to provide facilities for an additional 55,000 students over the next decade. We have a reasonably good education system but it is under-resourced. How will it cope with the vast increase in student numbers? In January of this year, 12,000 mature students applied to the CAO. That is more than twice the number of mature students who applied in 2003, which was a mere seven years ago. In the old days, just 60% of such people pursued their initial applications, but that figure has increased to 85%. The stress is getting greater.
I would like to speak about the payment of grants, which is the real nub of the issue. Various allowances are available to mature students, the main ones being the higher education grant and the back to education allowance. Prior to the latest budget, anyone who was in receipt of the back to education allowance could also apply for and receive the higher education grant. This is no longer the case, however, as a result of a budget decision. I want to address that directly. I have been contacted by some mature students who do not have any partisan bias. They would like me to put their experiences on the record. They made the point I have just made, which is that both the back to education allowance and the student maintenance grant were available to all mature students before the last budget. The back to education allowance is the equivalent of a person’s social welfare payment, such as the jobseeker’s benefit of €196 a week. As a result of the budget, mature students starting college in September of this year will no longer be entitled to receive both payments.
In April 2010, the Department of Education and Skills confirmed that people on disability or lone parent payments will be eligible to claim both payments. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will accept that despite that welcome blip, what I have outlined represents a narrowing of educational accessibility. The total amount of money available to all third level institutions for these grants is quite small. If a student wishes to apply for a payment under the student assistance fund, for example, he or she must submit a receipt and fill in an application form. He or she may then have to wait for up to three months to get some money. That causes difficulties for people on tight budgets. As the fund itself is limited, students are not guaranteed this assistance. The total amount available is €5 million. That fund can be accessed by all students, not just mature students. Mature students are now expected to attend third level education while living on their social welfare entitlements alone.
I would like to mention a couple of cases. The first case is that of a woman with five children who lives in rural County Galway and has to travel 80 km a day. She should not be prevented from returning to university simply because she has children. It would be impossible for her to attend university without financial assistance. The second case is that of a young man with three children who has to make a round trip of 20 km. The cost of travel is a factor for both people. It is difficult for them to access university without financial assistance. They have to pay for child care. The woman has to pay someone to mind her five children while she travels 80 km each day. It is impossible for her to do so within the existing grant structure. If one gets just €196 a week, how on earth can one feed and clothe one’s children, get an education and make a long round trip?
I started on an optimistic note, demonstrating from personal experience the talent that lies latent which could be activated in young and mature people. It is fanciful, however, for us to talk about this wonderfully well educated group when, in fact, we do not support it.
Trinity College, Dublin, now ranks in the top 50 world universities, even though it operates on a fraction of the funding Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale universities receive, a remarkable achievement. We cannot blind ourselves to the difficulties encountered in education, yet we engage in this sentimental waffle about having a wonderfully educated workforce when, in fact, we are falling back. We need to make the investment in education which will relieve the real people whose stories I have related in Seanad Éireann tonight.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I commend Senator Norris on his point on the back-to-education allowance for Access students and how we simply cannot rely on clichés. He is absolutely right. Education is not about clichés but lifelong learning. There is often confusion between education and schooling when they are not the same. I recall my young son, when he was one year old, being fascinated by a leaf and learning about it. Most of what we learn, we learn as young children. When I was mayor of Galway, I had the honour to preside over a conferring ceremony at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Towards the end of the ceremony which involved many young people accepting their awards, I noted an 80 year old lady accepting her degree. As she had not received a degree when she was a young woman, she decided to complete a degree course in her eighties. The general reaction in the hall to her accepting her degree was fantastic. Learning is not just about obtaining degrees, it is a lifelong process. It does not stop at the end of a university term or at a particular point in one’s education.
In a time of recession every Department will find it difficult. In this very difficult recession I am pleased education has been prioritised as one area of expenditure that will suffer less than others. Traditionally, it is the people who bring an economy out of a recession. It is important to ensure they have as much access to education as is possible to allow them to adapt to new circumstances.
Regarding the back-to-education allowance for Access students, the right to education is contained in the Constitution. I want mature students to be able to go to college independent of means to the extent that is possible. The Government has managed to keep third level fees off the agenda. Unfortunately, there are difficulties for people from underprivileged backgrounds who attend Access courses, on which the Government is working. As Senator Norris correctly pointed out, the maintenance grant and the back-to-education allowance were previously available to these students. The latter is only available now. Those most in need should not be prevented from going to college simply because they cannot afford it. I hope the Government will sort out this issue before the new school year.
Today I had the great privilege, with the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, to meet several persons with Down’s syndrome. It was a fantastic experience. They were very well educated and lobbying to secure speech therapy services. Speech therapy is an anomaly in the health and education sectors. It is a crucial part of the delivery of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act agreed in the programme for Government. The difficulty, however, is that funding for such services is provided by the Department of Health and Children. There are enough speech therapists in the country to ensure all children who require such therapy will receive it. The problem, however, arises with delivery mechanisms which are not available to all children. We need to look at imaginative delivery mechanisms which I know the Minister for Health and Children is examining.
I commend the green flag programme run by An Taisce in schools. People remember their school days, not necessarily for the modh coinníolach or the grind of maths but for special events. I refer to the idea of working towards project-based learning whereby people work towards a green flag. This is very empowering for younger people and they get a great amount out of it. I have attended a number of green flag ceremonies and events from which young children take great memories and learn a great amount of necessary skills for the future, including political and environmental knowledge, which they would not otherwise get from the curriculum. Such programmes are very important and we should consider the introduction of more of them, especially in the area of health. We have a view of health education in this country which is not as progressive as that of other countries. Health education is an area where we can attain real gains in respect of the overall health of the nation.
Other countries have increased their budgets or spend in health education and have seen very real benefits over a period. Finland is a case in point. It took a strategic decision to increase the spend on health education and promotion. This produced real and lasting effects. That country went from a health system which was not one of the top systems in Europe to the top health system in the world over a relatively short number of years. There is no reason this country should not aim to be among the best in the world in both health and education. I do not believe money is a barrier to that end, despite the difficult times we are going through at the moment. We can achieve lifelong learning by implementing the various policies which are being put forward by virtually all parties in respect of education. I refer to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and imaginative programmes for people of all ages, including programmes for older people, which are very important. Community-based education is very important as well. We must work on several projects which can enhance the overall education of the nation, but not on a cost basis in this difficult time of recession.
Senator Brendan Ryan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House to hear this debate. This motion commends the Government on its commitment to lifelong learning and upskilling, on implementing policies in support of activation and training, skills development and lifelong learning, and on the significant progress it has made in meeting the objectives set out in the national skills strategy. This could have been a good debate about upskilling and lifelong learning. Instead, because of the wording of the motion, it is reduced to a debate on whether the self-congratulation on the other side is justified. It is not. We must address the manner in which Private Members’ business is framed. This side of the House is equally guilty in terms of proposals put at Private Members’ time. Initially, we frame proposals on this side as a criticism of the lack of action and then proceed to make a further proposal. We should examine what we do in this regard because it frames the debates in an unnecessarily negative way.
Should we commend the Government on its commitment to lifelong learning? Senator John Paul Phelan outlined several indicators which suggest it should not be commended and I support his contention, although I will not go over those points again. I refer to the national skills strategy objectives, which are as follows: some 48% of the workforce should be qualified to National Framework of Qualifications, NFQ, levels 6 to 10, as against 38% if we continue as matters stand; some 45% of the workforce should be qualified to NFQ levels 4 to 5, as against 44% if we continue as matters stand; and 7% of the workforce will remain at NFQ levels 1 to 3 to reduce from 28% at present.
The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, provided a progress report on national skills strategy objectives on 20 March last. Although the strategy was announced in 2007, his progress report was measured against 2005, providing a somewhat false impression of progress. I am aware the baseline figures were based on the position in 2005. The Minister of State remarked that the percentage of those in the labour force with higher education qualifications had increased from 33% in 2005 to 39% in 2009 compared with the target of 48% by 2020. When measured against the 2007 position in respect of third level education and above, a 5% shift in two years is not dramatic, but I seek the Minister of State’s comments in this regard.
The Minister of State remarked that the percentage of the labour force with upper secondary level qualifications, including the leaving certificate, remained at 40% between 2005 and 2009, compared with a target of 45% by 2020. There has been no progress in this category. In this case, the 2005 figure is the same as the 2007 figure. There has been no progress in this category in four years. There is an argument that the rate of shift from this category upwards is greater than the shift from the lower level to this level and that is a factor to be considered. The percentage in 2007 was 25% and in this category a shift of 4% is not dramatic. The Minister of State referred to some progress at junior certificate level and below, with the percentage of the labour force at these levels falling from 27% to 21% and referred to there being some way to go to meet the 2020 target of 7%. Will the Minister of State indicate whether this is code for “We are not going to achieve it”? I seek his comments in this regard. This is the key area that must be addressed and tackled. What specifically is the Minister of State doing for those in this category, as opposed to a long-term strategy of working with those who are still in the education system? This is a real challenge, which I do not underestimate, but there is little evidence of progress. I call on the Minister of State to comment on this matter.
The quarterly national household survey figures for quarter 4 of 2009 inform us that unemployment levels among people with the lowest level of educational attainment, that is, lower secondary or below, are considerably greater than those among people with higher educational attainment. The representative figure for the former is 19% as opposed to the total workforce figure of 12.6%. There are no labour shortages in Ireland at present but there are skills shortages in the areas of information technology, science, sales and marketing, health, accountancy, engineering and management, which are all specialised high skill areas. Traditional manufacturing is almost gone from Ireland and is unlikely to return. Construction levels are seriously reduced at present and are unlikely to return to anything like the heights of recent years. Services and knowledge-based occupations are for the future and they require higher skill levels.
Let us consider the situation more positively. There are opportunities for people with lower level skills and these are referred to in the skills strategy. What is referred to as generic skills in the strategy are considered to be almost as important as technical or on-the-job skills for the future workplace. These include basic or fundamental skills such as numeracy, literacy and use of technology; people skills such as team working, communications and customer service; and conceptual, thinking or problem solving skills. Having worked in manufacturing all my working life until three years ago, I am aware such skills can be acquired through training and development initiatives. The focus of attention must shift from education attainment mix to a greater focus on upskilling of the current workforce for the new work era while recognising the need for formal recognition of skills attained. It goes without saying that we must improve the education levels of people entering the workforce. Early school leaving is a problem that must be addressed, as must the literacy and numeracy levels of those leaving school, to which other Senators referred.
It is obvious we need to prevent people from dropping out before completing second level education. We are aware that if pupils stay on in school, they will achieve more. The evidence clearly shows that young people without a leaving certificate are at a disadvantage in the jobs market and face an increased risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. We are aware also that 9,000 students leave secondary school every year without a leaving certificate qualification.
I refer to the heartless targeting of access programme students by the Government in the last budget, a matter referred to by Senators on both sides of the House. We heard evidence at the Joint Committee on Education and Science last week that highlighted the need for the Government to provide more support to this group, not to diminish it. Student access funding is in place for those who do not have the conventional educational requirements to get into third level or who come from socioeconomic backgrounds which are under-represented in higher education. Between 800 and 1,000 access students enter third level every year, which is good progress, but not nearly good enough. By definition, students receiving support include those from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, perhaps the first in the family to access third level education, or a person in a targeted group, namely, the long-term unemployed, people with a disability, minority groups and Travellers. Despite the obvious need for support, the Government brought down the axe on many Access students in the 2010 budget.
Jobseekers are no longer entitled to receive the back to education allowance and the student maintenance grant. This has had a hugely negative impact on people’s lives. Instead of assisting students who are trying against the odds to get an education, the Government has acted in a most destructive manner. Surely it should not be congratulated for this. Is it the case that the back to education allowance is not available to persons pursuing postgraduate courses? If not, why not? Given the need for people to move out of work areas which are not in demand and into those areas that are, perhaps the Government should reconsider its policy.
Is the Minister happy that scarce resources being used to provide much needed training for unemployed people are being used effectively? It has been brought to my attention that on a recent course on AutoCAD — I cannot confirm whether it was run by or for FÁS — 60% of the trainees were foreign nationals who had been in the country for less than four months. How could that be? We cannot afford to waste resources in this way, if that is happening to any great extent. Many complain to me that they cannot get a place on a FÁS course; therefore, if waste is a problem, it must be addressed. What controls are in place to ensure we are getting what we pay for? The Minister should have a review carried out of this important issue.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Seán Haughey): I welcome the opportunity once again to address the Seanad on the key issue of lifelong learning. I thank the Senators who have contributed so far for the informed nature of the debate and look forward to the contributions of the Senators who are due to speak. As Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning, I know there is growing awareness that education is a lifelong process and that learning should occur at all stages of life, from preschool to post-retirement. Nowadays we must continually develop our skills and further our knowledge to keep pace in a fast-changing world.
As a small open economy in an increasingly globalised world, this has never been more true. We are totally committed to the provision of lifelong learning opportunities, despite the significant economic challenges we face. The Government is fully aware of the need for people to continually upskill with the necessary skills for the jobs of tomorrow. This commitment is manifested in the creation of the labour market activation fund, worth €20 million. The fund is intended to support the provision of training and education programmes for the unemployed, prioritising the low skilled and those formerly employed in declining sectors such as construction, retail and manufacturing, with particular emphasis on the under 35s and the long-term unemployed. Following an open tender competition in which 370 tenders were received, the Tánaiste announced yesterday the award of contracts to 26 organisations across the private, not-for-profit and public sectors to support 6,500 additional training and education places in programmes for priority groups of the unemployed. These programmes will come on stream from this month, a very welcome development.
In terms of additional measures, during the years the Government has expanded opportunities in further education which plays a key role by providing access, transfer and progression opportunities for the lower skilled, the disadvantaged and the hard-to-reach, including the unemployed. Expenditure in this area increased by 60% from €256 million in 2002 to €426 million in 2010, as Senator Ormonde mentioned. Part-time learning opportunities for the low-skilled, the disadvantaged and the unemployed are available all year round through the back to education initiative, adult literacy and community education programmes. Together, these programmes are catering for an estimated 125,000 learners in 2010.
In addition, full-time further education opportunities are being provided throughout 2010 for over 40,000 learners, including the unemployed, mainly at levels 3 to 6 on the national framework of qualifications, under the Youthreach, senior Traveller training centre, vocational training opportunities scheme and post-leaving certificate, PLC, programmes. The expansion of opportunities continued in 2009, with an additional 1,500 PLC places for the 2009-10 academic year, bringing the total number of places available nationwide to nearly 31,700. The increase in demand for education opportunities can clearly be seen in the significant increase in the number of back to education allowance recipients, up to over 18,000, many of whom are participating in further and higher education programmes.
The higher education sector has a key role to play in helping people who have lost their jobs to develop their workforce skills. Increasing numbers are choosing to enter higher education, a welcome trend at a time of reduced opportunity for direct school leaver entry to the labour market and increasing demand for reskilling and upskilling among the broader adult population. The number of Central Applications Office, CAO, applications received by 1 February this year for places in the 2010-11 academic year is up approximately 6% on the same time in 2009. This increase is broadly in line with expectations and the increase seen the previous year. Higher education institutions have been responding to the increase in demand by increasing the number of places they offer. In this regard, CAO acceptances in 2009-10 were 45,582, up 8.3% on the figure for the previous year, 2008-09, which, in turn, had seen an increase of 5.4% on the figure for 2007-08. At a time of considerable pressure on budgets and staffing resources, this demonstrates a significant willingness on the part of higher education providers to respond to increasing demand.
During 2009 a number of new initiatives were taken by the higher education sector to support unemployed persons return to education and engage in upskilling. Over 900 unemployed persons participated in short courses in the institutes of technology, while 160 students undertook accelerated level 6 programmes. In addition, from September 2009 almost 1,800 unemployed persons were supported to embark on part-time undergraduate and postgraduate courses in areas that support the goals of the Government’s smart economy document. Similarly, in the training sector there have been substantial increases in the resources aimed at tackling unemployment. The FÁS employment services, together with the local employment services, have doubled their capacity to cater for the rise in referrals from the Department of Social Protection. This increased the annual referral capacity to 147,000 persons in 2009. Furthermore, my Department will fund the provision of approximately 157,000 training and work experience places this year for the unemployed. This compares to the 66,000 places delivered in 2008 and the 130,000 delivered last year.
There are additional training places on short courses available to the unemployed. In 2009 FÁS delivered approximately 92,000 short course training places to the unemployed. This is a quadrupling of the number of similar courses provided in 2008 and reflects the Government’s efforts in increasing relevant supports for the unemployed. Short training courses are designed to respond to individual training needs in the development of new skills and competencies. Courses are delivered in a variety of ways in order to be as flexible as possible. This has enabled more people to access them. To try to address the significant contraction of activity in the construction sector and its impact on apprenticeships, FÁS has restructured the apprenticeship system to allow redundant apprentices to progress to the next off-the-job training phase in the education sector.
Coupled with all of these initiatives, the Department of Social Protection works with social welfare recipients through a network of facilitators to identify appropriate training or development programmes. These will enhance the skills the individual has and ultimately improve his or her employment chances, as well as help him or her to continue to develop personally. The facilitators work in close co-operation with other agencies and service providers, including FÁS, VECs, other education and training providers and the local and community and voluntary sector. They also provide advice and support to clients who wish to access the back to education and back to work schemes of the Department of Social Protection.
The Government has sought to provide additional education and training opportunities with the support of the European globalisation adjustment fund, co-funded by the EU. Details of that scheme have been circulated to Members.
The training and upskilling of the country’s workforce is a vital element of this country’s recovery from the current downturn, both in the context of encouraging the emergence of indigenous enterprises as well as attracting inward investment into Ireland. My Department is therefore focused on ensuring the delivery of high quality activation services to its priority cohorts, including those with low skills or education levels, those who have been on the live register for an extended period and those who were previously employed in sectors that have been most affected by restructuring and where recovery to near previous levels is not a realistic prospect in the short to medium term.
Members will be aware that, in 2007, the Government published the national skills strategy, based on a detailed analysis by the expert group on future skills needs. A number of Senators have referred to that. While the economic situation has changed significantly since the publication of the strategy, the goals and objectives remain valid. The current economic and labour market difficulties in Ireland mean that the implementation of the strategy is even more important, not just for the economy as a whole but especially for the many individuals who are experiencing unemployment and who require new skills to get back into employment.
Significant progress has been made towards the achievement of the strategy targets. The percentage of those in the labour force with higher education qualifications has increased from 33% in 2005 to 39% in 2009, as was mentioned during the course of the debate. The percentage of the population aged 20 to 24 with at least upper secondary level education increased from 86% in 2005 to 88% by 2008 and retention at leaving certificate of those who entered school in 2001 has also risen from just over 81% to almost 85%. The percentage of those in the labour force with less than a junior certificate has fallen from 27% in 2005 to 21% in 2009. In this context, progress is clear in relation to third level but a priority is upskilling the low skilled, bringing those with skills equivalent to levels 1 to 3 on the national framework of qualifications up to levels 4 and 5. We are committed to achieving our targets. We have a long-term strategy continuing until 2020. We will endeavour to reach those targets and we have no reason to fear we will not do so.
The bringing together of responsibility for education and skills training under one Department, the Department of Education and Skills, will enhance our ability to deliver a more cohesive response for individuals, potential employers and local communities. The alignment of skills training and FÁS with the further education and training activities of the VECs and the institutes of technology provides an opportunity for the elimination of duplication and the streamlining and strengthening of provision to deliver the best possible outcomes for learners. There has been further co-operation between FÁS and the VECs, especially having regard to the FÁS-Irish Vocational Education Association national co-operation agreement, and I welcome that.
I am delighted to have had this opportunity to highlight the numerous initiatives and opportunities for those who want to engage in lifelong learning. Currently the focus is on upskilling due to the level of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We must continue to invest in the skills of our workforce to enhance employment skills. We must ensure we have the necessary blend of skills required to succeed as a knowledge-based economy. Ireland is competing in an ever-increasing global competitive marketplace where the key to success is establishing competitive advantage. We must constantly review our education and training provision to ensure we are meeting the needs of industry and the economy. We must encourage greater participation in lifelong learning by facilitating and motivating people of all ages to increase their skill levels and qualifications, to acquire new skills and knowledge in different areas and to renew existing skills to stay abreast of technology and other developments. Lifelong learning is also important for personal development and social cohesion which are imperative if we are to continue to develop a fair and just society in Ireland.
The challenges presented by the global financial crisis require a concerted and coherent response. Therefore, we must work together, domestically and internationally, locally and regionally, as partners and joint stakeholders in our country’s future. We must consolidate our investment to ensure long-term sustainability and build a flexible and robust education and training system that promotes social inclusion as well as upskilling and re-skilling.
The Government will continue to promote lifelong learning and support initiatives in this regard. Much progress has been made in this area and I am committed to building further on our achievements to date. In this way we will improve not only the lives of learners but the lives of their families and community and our economy.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I thank the Minister of State for the information he has provided to Senators. The picture does not seem as rosy as he has outlined. Lifelong learning, upskilling and retraining are now more important than ever in our society and in the lives of many who are unemployed, isolated and abandoned and who do not have the access to re-skilling and education they deserve.
My colleagues have dealt with the issues of literacy, numeracy and basic educational needs. They have also referred to the formal and informal roles of the agencies in attaining the basic standard of education that gives people a reasonable and fair chance in life.
The Minister of State referred to early school leavers and the young unemployed. Thousands of young people feel they have no option but to leave the country. Many of them have a good education, vocational training and apprenticeships but they cannot find work where they can use the resources they have acquired over many years. It is important that all State agencies look at new ways to find employment for those young people.
We need to think outside the box. Thousands of young apprentices are skilled in the building trade but will not find work in the construction of new build. Under master craftsmen, they could be employed in areas such as conservation and community projects renovating or conserving schools, community halls or other buildings of importance to communities. Surely we can look at ways of getting those apprentices off the dole queues, employing master craftsmen to oversee the work they do and putting practical schemes in place to deliver productivity for the community and develop new or alternative skills in the young apprentices. That is how we need to think and how State agencies need to restructure themselves to create employment for young people.
In a recession there is a bigger demand than ever for our State agencies and for those who train and educate. We need to remove any barriers to people achieving new skills. We must encourage initiative, enterprise and lifelong learning. All these areas must be addressed.
I acknowledge the role of VECs and FÁS. They have done a good job over many years, but we are in a different time now. Old ways will not meet the demands of modern society and of the recession. We need to restructure and rethink how we can find employment for our people.
The Minister of State referred to the European globalisation adjustment fund. I come from Waterford which has been heavily dependent on manufacturing. We have taken huge hits over recent years with significant companies such as Waterford Crystal, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and ABB engaging in large-scale redundancies. The Minister of State mentioned that a large number of applications are before the European Parliament and while I understand the Waterford Crystal and SR Technics applications are near approval, I regret that the response of the Government to the application was poor.
I owe an apology to FÁS. I organised a public meeting in Waterford to which I invited all State agencies and redundant workers from Waterford Crystal to enlighten them about the application and to make it more transparent. European Commission officials visited Waterford to explain how the scheme would work and how they would benefit. Unfortunately, I omitted to invite FÁS and I criticised the agency afterwards for not attending. Although the meeting was publicly advertised and FÁS officials did not turn up, I apologise to them. The scheme is not being co-ordinated properly and information is not being communicated to redundant workers who are in need and who, at a critical time in their lives, find themselves unemployed. They are seeking guidance and leadership which they are not getting from the Government.
Initially, FÁS was the co-ordinating agency for the Dell application and it was understood it would fill the same role for the Waterford Crystal workers but, unfortunately, the Government has advertised for an independent co-ordinating agency which has only added to the confusion. The clock is ticking and the workers are appealing for assistance, communication, consultation and tailor-made courses as opposed to standard forklift and computer courses. Courses that take advantage of new opportunities in the areas of green technology, renewables and entrepreneurship are needed. Workers need to be enabled to access such courses but there is no engagement on the ground. I appeal to the Minister of State to address this concern.
There is a 24-month window to access the European globalisation adjustment fund which will provide €500 million in total. Funding has almost been secured for Waterford and it is important it is used in the best and most efficient manner to assist workers and the agencies engaged in rolling out courses and to ensure the agencies are fully au fait with their responsibilities and obligations in this regard. I suspect they are not currently. I invited representatives of many of those agencies to the public meeting and they were not aware of their responsibilities nor had they been notified officially by the Department of their obligations under the scheme. This needs attention.
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. will make 315 workers redundant later this year in Waterford. Unfortunately, applications to access the European fund must relate to a minimum of 500 workers but there is nothing to prevent the Government combining these workers with those who have lost jobs in the industry at, for example, Pfizer or in similar industries and submitting a combined application on their behalf. We still have not heard from the Government about whether it intends to make an application to the fund on behalf of the Teva Pharmaceutical and ABB workers, which is neglectful. The Government must focus on the needs of all redundant workers and not only those formerly employed by large companies. The job losses of smaller companies need to be combined to access as much assistance as possible for the workers affected.
The construction industry also needs to be examined because thousands of workers have been made redundant in that sector. Many of them were self-employed tradesmen and, because of this, they have been more or less left to their own devices. It is important they receive assistance from the State. They need to find new ways to create jobs and to return to the workforce, whether that is through entrepreneurship with the assistance of county and city enterprise boards or agencies such as the VEC and FÁS. The bar needs to be raised and we need to find the ways to get people back to work or to participate in lifelong learning initiatives.
Senator Mark Daly: I am conscious a number of other Senators would like to contribute and, therefore, I will be brief. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The figures he outlined are impressive but more needs to be done and cutbacks will have to be reversed in the fullness of time. The day will never come in Ireland when we will be able to say we spend enough on lifelong learning or education. In the current economic climate, we do not have the money to spend on all the education schemes we have set up. The Youthreach programme in Killarney, County Kerry, is playing a vital role in ensuring those who normally would fall through the cracks in the system are helped to attain the necessary skills to fulfil their potential. Lifelong learning is about giving people the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
Colleagues on all sides of the House fought valiantly to ensure community employment, CE, schemes were retained when it was proposed that they be scrapped. They have played a vital role in cities, towns and villages, including Kenmare, in ensuring work is done that would not necessarily be done.
The Government proposes to introduce a new subject to the school curriculum entitled politics in society which will educate students about how they should contribute to their society. It is startling to think that children go through the primary and secondary school without being educated about how to be citizens. They are taught French, history, mathematics, biology, English and Irish but they are not taught how to be citizens, how to volunteer, why they should vote and why they should participate fully in their community.
Senator Coffey raised a number of issues relating to unemployed tradesmen. A proposal is due to come to Government and the Minister for Social Protection will take it up. Under the proposal he will utilise those on the dole queues to renovate buildings and construct new buildings for community purposes. This will not only create employment and provide new community facilities but also enhance the self-esteem of those involved. Unemployment is terrible not only from a financial point of view but also from a personal point of view.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I wish to share time with Senator Mullen. I welcome the Minister of State and I am delighted he is present because this issue is a challenge. I have spent the past three Mondays at different Retail Excellence Ireland training sessions in Dublin, Limerick and Cork, which were fascinating. A total of 60 people attended each session. They had been employed in other professions and they replied to an advertisement offering a free opportunity to learn about retailing. Some were architects, engineers, students and unemployed but they wanted to get into the retail industry because they said there is a hunger out there to learn. The Minister of State can ensure the enthusiasm for learning is embraced. It is encouraging that the education qualifications of our labour force have increased dramatically in recent years. A total of 186,300 more people had a third level qualification last year than in 2005. Now about 20% of the Irish workforce have higher educational qualifications. The figures also show that the percentage of secondary students staying on to leaving certificate has risen to 84%, the highest level ever.
One of the areas that excited me was the involvement I had in the leaving certificate applied. I know that Senator Jerry Buttimer shares the same enthusiasm I have for this. The leaving certificate applied identifies talents, skills and intelligence other than those that are measured by the traditional leaving certificate. People who failed the leaving certificate, perhaps because they were not good at reading and writing, could be brilliant at oration, speaking and listening. Such students were never identified, apart from some minor exceptions in the traditional leaving certificate system. I have known that many people who have had that opportunity have blossomed and grown, so let us not tie ourselves down with the old traditional skills and academic qualifications formula when there are so many other opportunities to be explored.
I spoke recently at one of the DIT campuses. It was very interesting, and Senator Brendan Ryan made the point about a very large number of those attending these courses not being Irish-born. I was told one of the challenges facing this particular course was that the Irish attendees, because they were getting it free of charge, did not seem to value it that much and the drop-out rate from this cohort was very high, whereas the non-Irish valued it to such an extent that they stayed. It seems to me that one of the difficulties we must address is to do with the student who opts out of college having formerly been enthusiastic about the course he or she was taking. In my company over the years we asked people to pay for attending a course. They did not have to qualify but if they completed a course, they would get a refund. There are areas such as that about which we could do something.
I am concerned that the update on the national skills strategy shows that an educational divide is opening up with slower progress being made in upskilling early school leavers and those on the live register for a year or longer. We must also address the problem of those previously working in areas where jobs have been lost, such as construction, manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing. The Minister of State has touched on this but I would remind him that much more could be done in that area. There is an ambition to learn and succeed if we can only find a way to ensure those who are in danger of being left behind get to grab their opportunities to learn and develop themselves to get work.
I always laugh at this debate on a Wednesday night where the Government says “That Seanad Éireann commends the Government” and the Opposition automatically says “That Seanad Éireann condemns the Government” and substitutes everything else in the motion. Let us work together on this one at some point or other.
Senator Rónán Mullen: The Minister of State is greatly respected for his commitment to and championing of adult education, and I welcome him to the House. I fear, however, that his efforts have not always been as successful here as the porters would wish. Henry Ford once said that anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80.. It was true when he said it and it is even more true now. The nature of work in a modern society demands that all of us continually learn new skills if we are to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing economy. I am often asked to give talks to transition year students and also leaving certificate candidates preparing to fill out their CAO forms. One of the points I make to them is that society has changed rapidly. Once upon a time people embarked on a particular career and many stayed on the same track throughout life. Now, as Patrick Kavanagh would say, it is a matter of testing and tasting. People who leave school and embark on third level education have a choice, but they must be ready to twist and turn in the world ahead, to upgrade their qualifications, perhaps change direction, avail of opportunities and respond to changes in the job market. It is very important that the education system prepares people for that future reality because it is crucial that people are able to discern at the earliest stage possible the talents they have been given, what natural aptitude they have and how they may best strive for an occupation that will bring satisfaction and help them to serve their families and communities as well as their own aptitude.
Very few people now, on leaving college and entering the workforce, will stay in the same line of work for the duration of their working careers. The era of the safe pensionable job for life is now a thing of the past. We therefore need an education system that is open to participants at any time in their career and which is capable of delivering education when and where needed to suit the student, not the educator. We do not have such a system, however, and this is a particular problem in rural Ireland where 42% of the national population resides. Rural areas account for a mere 28% of total employment opportunities and the virtual annihilation of the construction sector has been a key driver of unemployment there. The simple fact is that many young people left education during the boom to earn good money in the construction sector and now find themselves without a job, skills or educational qualifications. We need a targeted approach to help these people and a speedy response from Government.
In 2009 adult education accounted for just 4.3% of the overall education budget. This amounts to 0.22% of GDP and 0.27% of GNP. Spending has increased only marginally since 2000 and does not take the current demand into account. This is putting providers under extreme pressure, while for learners the demand for adult education means increased competition for places. We need to put in place a properly funded and structured approach for dealing with this challenge. In the absence of a national co-ordinating body a lightweight structured forum should be created with the aim of facilitating partnership, collaboration and sharing best practice while informing policy development on an ongoing basis. Such a forum could comprise the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, the Irish Vocational Education Association and Aontas, the national adult literacy agency, at the outset with inputs from other stakeholders as appropriate. This would ensure funding earmarked for activation measures would benefit participants while stimulating economic recovery.
As a final comment on what Senator Quinn had to say about attitudes, it is very important, I believe, as someone teaching in third level, that we do as much as possible to guarantee quality education and also to ensure retention. People vary in their attitudes to what they are getting. That is true. There is a phrase in Irish, “An rud a fhaightear go bog, caitear go bog é”, and I often wonder whether things have been too easy in the past. We need to get people to value the education experience they are going through as well, and that concern is all the more pressing given the international competition we face and the concerns that have been expressed about the quality of our graduate qualifications. We need to motivate people in all sectors, including the student population, to make the most of the education opportunity so that we may best serve ourselves and our community in the years ahead.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. It has never been more important that a Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning is active in his brief and that he has the ear of his senior Minister, Deputy Mary Coughlan, as well as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. It is important we put things in context. The unemployment figures today underlined the gravity that faces the country as a small open economy, to paraphrase the Minister of State’s speech. We need more than just words of commitment to lifelong learning, retraining and upskilling. This debate is timely and Senator Coffey referred to Waterford. I take the case of Cork and look at the area around Carrigaline, which is one of the highest unemployment blackspots in the country for those under 25.
I heard Senator Ormond earlier, an educationalist, and I agree with her. We need to change the leaving certificate and remodel the whole emphasis in education. We need to wipe the slate clean and start again, meet the teachers’ unions, parents, teachers on the ground and the Department and start afresh. Senator Quinn is correct. The leaving certificate applied was one of the most innovative and exciting collaborative initiatives in education. I taught it for years.
We gave students who were struggling a new opportunity in education and they blossomed. They flourished. They went from troublesome, shy and retiring kids to confident entrepreneurs. Some of them would buy and sell one now. What did the Government do? It cut the grants to the leaving certificate applied and reduced its funding. It poured cold water on it. The leaving certificate applied gave hope and life to students. Senator O’Reilly mentioned an ESRI report from some time ago which stated that 18% of students — almost one in five — leave school with no qualification. That is a damning indictment of all involved in education.
The A student will always get by because he or she has the motivation, the ability and the drive to get to the final destination, but the student in the middle or at the bottom does not have that drive. We need to invest in education. It must be pupil centred and person oriented. It is not about statistics or figures; it is about people. Education is about giving people opportunity. It is about creating hope and rewarding people.
The example of the construction industry highlights all that is wrong with our approach to lifelong learning, education and skills. We can have all the reports we want, but we must consider the number of people who left school, went into construction and are now on the unemployment line with no hope and no opportunity. I made the point on a previous occasion that while I fully subscribe to the aims of the national skills strategy and Towards 2016, the white elephant that is FÁS must be changed. It must be rebranded, renamed and given new ideas and opportunities. It must be brought out into the community. Community employment schemes must be enhanced and more people should be given employment within the community. We must rebuild and create sustainable communities.
I have mentioned my serious concern about the fact that there is no Government jobs strategy. What we have head today underlines this. Where is the blueprint for graduate internship programmes as proposed by Deputy Varadkar? There is no response from the Government. What about second-chance education? I am a former director of adult education with the national association of community education directors. We have thousands attending courses every night in the community, voluntary and secondary sector. We created FETAC to ensure uniformity in the awarding of diplomas and certificates, but there is too much bureaucracy. We must allow people to participate in second-chance education and increase their skills.
Most nights when I am out canvassing I meet people who have lost their jobs and wish to return to education. They want to have the hope of a career and are prepared to change their lives. The Government, and our education system, must change with them. The VECs and all back-to-education initiatives must embrace people. Education must be people-centred. The resource is the person. We have a tremendous workforce whose members really want to work. We forgot for so long that we had people who wanted to work. We allowed immigrant workers to come in, thinking they would return to their countries, but in many cases they have not done so, nor do we want them to because they work very hard.
There is a challenge for all of us, politically and individually, to recreate education. If the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills does nothing else, let her invest in the leaving certificate applied, talk to the unions and teachers and create a new leaving certificate and junior certificate system. Our educated workforce and students must be fit to work. We do not need the chairman of Intel or others to tell us we have an issue with our education system. It needs leadership and I hope we will get it.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: This has been a wide-ranging debate and it is quite evident that it has been informed by the experience and exposure of the contributors to the education system. This reflects the make-up of the Seanad, as we have often remarked on. It is inevitable that success will be measured against potential for the future, and education is no different. It is not something that stands still. We must always look to the future and reflect what is happening in any era.
The contributions throughout the debate kept returning to the issue of jobs. This is because of the economic difficulties we face. It is only right we should consider closely how our education system, as it now stands, suits the current needs of the country. We deal with issues organically here. The system is always moving, but it has served us well up to now. That was the point I made in my contribution and it was also made by a number of other speakers. Irrespective of the motion and the amendment, one message was coming across. We all want to see changes where necessary, and those changes will have to take into account the challenges we face at present.
It is worth remembering that the structure we have had for the past 20 or 30 years has served us exceptionally well. Those Senators who have served as teachers would agree that we have produced many fine leaders. Senator Buttimer made the very same point I made in my contribution. If we consider the entrepreneurs who have come out of the education system in the past, we can see without doubt that the system was suited to those people at that time.
We should not necessarily have a constant focus on multinationals or major industries when it comes to employment. We must consider community employment and positions that help the individual, whether it is metalworking, basket making, crochet or delivering apple tarts to local shops. All such modes of employment have been important in the past and they do not suffer from the same winds of change as bigger industries. That is not to say that the whole economy can be built on such jobs. If we are looking for ways to help, however, that is one way.
We were all proud to see the editorial in The Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago which commended Ireland strongly and pointed to it as an example of a country which was capable of taking necessary measures. Bearing in mind the number of American companies in Ireland, we must remember that The Wall Street Journal will be read by all captains of industry in that country. This glowing commendation of Ireland was made possible by our education system. I have moved from cottage industries to multinationals.
There are two aspects to education, one of which is the development of one’s character and personality. I am fully committed to the idea of a rounded education in that context. The second aspect is preparation for obtaining a job at the end of one’s education. Both of these must be considered. We must consider the education system closely to determine whether our qualifications and courses are designed in this way at present.
This debate has been worthwhile. Obviously the cut and thrust of politics will require a vote. That is all right. We will all go into our own lobbies. I have no doubt, however, that we have all focused on what is important. Senator Feargal Quinn put it well, although I noticed that the two words “commend” and “condemn” sound very alike. In fact, they have many of the same letters. However, when the voting is over, I do not doubt that between those two words, there have been contributions from both sides of the House today of which cognisance should be taken. The Members who made those contributions have the experience and exposure that can make a major contribution to any reassessment of the education system for the future.
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Cannon, Ciaran.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||Phelan, John Paul.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Twomey, Liam.||White, Alex.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carroll, James.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||Dearey, Mark.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||McDonald, Lisa.|
|Mooney, Paschal.||Ó Brolcháin, Niall.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Quinn, Feargal.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Last Updated: 15/12/2010 10:57:23||Page of 12|